Women in New Jersey will soon be in a much stronger position to challenge employers who discriminate against them by paying less than male colleagues who do effectively the same work— thanks to legislation signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy yesterday.
The measure signed by Murphy on his 99th day in office is being billed as one of the nation’s toughest pay-equity laws; it gives women and other members of a protected class in New Jersey the ability to sue for and collect triple damages.
The new law, which takes effect on July 1, also lengthens the amount of back pay that can be recouped by the victims of pay discrimination, and it bars companies from punishing employees who discuss their compensation with coworkers.
Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama woman who became famous as the namesake of a 2009 federal pay-equity law after mounting an extended legal battle against her longtime employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, spoke at the ceremony, that also drew dozens of activists.
“This bill today will mean so much to this state, and therefore the nation,” Ledbetter said. “It will change the communities.”
Making good on a core promise
The bill-signing followed through on a core promise made by Murphy, a first-term Democrat, during last year’s gubernatorial campaign. It was Murphy’s Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, who vetoed efforts to establish many of the same protections during his two terms in office.
“New Jersey is sending a clear message to the nation that our wage gap will be closed, and we’re not going to wait around,” Murphy said yesterday.
Nationally, it’s estimated that women working fulltime jobs generally make about 80 cents for every $1 earned by men, creating what’s commonly referred to as the gender wage-gap. In New Jersey, conditions are only slightly better, with women receiving 81 cents for every $1 earned by their male counterparts, according to the latest figures from the National Women’s Law Center.
New Jersey lawmakers have tried for years to combat the gender-pay disparity through legislation, but their efforts were blocked by Christie, who claimed measures sent to him during his two terms in office went too far. Concerns had also been raised by some representatives of the state’s business community as the proposed changes went far beyond protections established in federal law.
But Murphy argued yesterday that the new state law would be a competitive asset for New Jersey, and that it could end up strengthening the overall state economy in the long run. Establishing a strong pay-equity law was one of the key issues Murphy raised as a candidate last year, as he promised to create a stronger and fairer economy in New Jersey.
“The companies who claim this is anti-business have missed a meeting,” Murphy said yesterday. “The world has changed.”
“We had the right idea, we just needed the right governor,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Under the new law, companies in New Jersey will be prohibited from paying women and minorities less than men when they perform “substantially similar work.” A pay disparity could still exist under the law, but only if an employer “demonstrates that the differential is made pursuant to a seniority system or a merit system, or is based on legitimate, bona fide factors other than sex or other characteristics of members of a protected class, such as training, education, experience, or the quantity or quality of production.”
The new law extends the lookback period for back pay in pay-discrimination cases from two years to six, allows for the awarding of triple damages, and establishes new reporting requirements for companies doing business with the state that cover the gender, race, ethnicity, and job categories of their employees. In addition to banning companies from punishing employees who share information about their compensation with coworkers, the law also makes it illegal to ask employees to voluntarily waive their right to equal pay.
Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director for New Jersey Citizen Action, one of the organizations that had been lobbying for the pay-equity legislation in the State House, said the law will give women “strong tools to combat pay discrimination and recover lost wages.”
“The law will strongly compel employers to closely examine their pay practices and make every effort to ensure they are fair,” Jaborska said.
Andrea Johnson, from the National Women’s Law Center, also noted the bipartisan nature of the legislation, which last month passed the Senate in a 35-0 vote, and the Assembly by a 74-2 margin.
“This law will shine much-needed light on pay practices and incentivize employers to uncover and correct the pay disparities that are hurting New Jersey’s working people,” Johnson said.
The new law is named the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act, after the former Republican state senator who cosponsored the last pay-equity measure to draw Christie’s veto pen, along with Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
That measure cleared both houses of the Legislature with strong majorities in 2016, but it was conditionally vetoed by Christie, who claimed it would make New Jersey a “liberal outlier.” In response, Democrats who controlled the Senate, where the bill originated, refused to put his recommendations up for a vote and instead attempted an override of his veto. But the override was pulled back before it was officially recorded after it became clear there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to succeed as several Republicans changed their votes, saying they preferred to find a compromise with the then-GOP governor.
Allen is a former television news anchor who experienced discrimination firsthand, settling with an employer after filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She attended yesterday’s bill signing, and afterward said that she is proud to have the new law be a part of her legacy.
“I can’t think of a better (law) to hold my name,” she said. “This is so important to me, to see women move forward.”
Weinberg thanked Allen and Assembly sponsor Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) during her remarks, while also praising Ledbetter for providing the inspiration.
“What she did, and what she’s continued to do, is be the beacon that got us here,” Weinberg said.